Pitfalls in Thinking Part 4: False Dichotomy

Pitfalls in Thinking Part 4: False Dichotomy

Dichotomy refers to things or ideas that have two opposite parts or two things that are very different from each other. Dichotomies are usually expressed with words such as “either” or “or;” terms that suggest that there are only two possibilities in terms of answer choices. In some cases, dichotomies are accurate representations of the options, such as asking “heads or tails?” when flipping a coin. In other cases, two options do not fully reflect all of the possible options.

Consider the following questions:

  • Is it better to have conservative or liberal government policies?
  • Should people lose weight through diet or exercise?
  • Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

If these questions were easy for you to answer, you probably have strong opinions on those topics and consistently fall on one side of the spectrum. For many of you, it was likely difficult to firmly choose one option over the other. Perhaps you identify as a libertarian, believe diet and exercise are equally important, and find yourself somewhat in the middle of introversion and extroversion. These types of questions are examples of false dichotomies, arguments or questions that assume that there are only two possibilities (an “either/or” situation) when in reality, there is at least one additional option or outcome. False dichotomies take nuanced concepts and arguments about complex issues like politics, health, and personality and reduce them to two rigid positions.

When two positions are presented as clear opposites, the mind is led to consider only the limited options presented rather than exploring other alternatives or combinations of ideas. While false dichotomies can arise unintentionally, they can also be used to purposefully persuade someone to think in terms of these opposite possibilities. Whether intentional or not, false dichotomies encourage the thinker/listener to engage in black-and-white thinking rather than considering the full range of options that may exist in order to find the best solution or response. They also lead us to feel more entrenched in our existing beliefs and opinions, so we are more likely to forget that other options may be beneficial or have positive qualities.

Phrasing a question or argument as a false dichotomy can be used as a deliberate tactic for persuading the listener toward a particular side of the issue when they consider their thoughts and feelings on it. Framing in this way can serve the purpose of influencing the opponent into an extreme position that they might not otherwise take if provided with a more accurate and exhaustive range of possibilities. Essentially, presenting information as a false dichotomy can be used to deliberately encourage someone to think or act in more extreme ways by reducing the likelihood of considering a larger range of options.

If you think of false dichotomies as relatively benign, consider the impact of a statement such as “you’re either with us or against us!” It may appear subtle, but this message has the effect of classifying those who do not specifically agree with us or fully support our position as being entirely different from us or adversarial toward us. It leaves out the option of being neutral, in between, a little bit of both, unsure, and all of the other possible realities that may more accurately represent the situation. Just because someone is not with us does not mean that they’re against us!

When faced with a false dichotomy, it’s important to consider what is good and bad about each option, rather than simply choosing amongst the two presented options. Recognize that reality is rarely that simple and that the best solutions often result from exploring the multitude of options individually as well as in conjunction with each other. Ask yourself if there are other possibilities or if there are answers that combine aspects of each side in a way that maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks. Reflecting on the many pros and cons of each choice will encourage deeper critical thinking, improve decision making, facilitate more cooperative, harmonious relationships, and help to resist the persuasive power of arguments phrased as false dichotomies!

Check in next week where we’ll discuss our last critical thinking pitfall of this series, the self-fulfilling prophecy!

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